Written by Sarah Mills
When I told friends I was going to Sierra Leone for three months in 2013, they thought I was mad.
Why would anyone go to a dangerous war-torn country? I don’t blame them - the only things Westerners really associate with the small West African country are blood diamonds and child soldiers.
And I admit, when I touched down in the capital Freetown at 4 a.m. one morning in May, I did feel a bit anxious. Was I about to get ripped off and robbed? Why did I bring my expensive camera? How soon could I get a flight back?
But I was pleasantly surprised: The people are welcoming and the scenery is beautiful. Remember the 1970s ad for Bounty chocolate bar - “The taste of Paradise”? It was shot on a beach in Sierra Leone.
Still, life there is tough. Despite the diamond and iron ore riches under their soil, about 70 percent of the population lives in poverty, in part an economic hangover from the country’s 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002 and saw about 50,000 people killed.
Today, the war is not mentioned much, but when asked, everyone has an awful story to tell, including Abdul and Ibrahim - two young men I met in Sierra Leone’s second largest city Bo.
I was there to check out the motorcyclists organisation they work for, which was set up to help former soldiers get work. I was intrigued by how fighters from both sides of the war could be friends, and I wanted to understand what life was like now for the young people who had been caught up in the conflict.
Abdul, one of the managers, welcomed me into the home he shares with his sisters and even took me on a four-hour trip to meet his mum. The more we hung out, the more he seemed like my male friends back home – he likes a drink with friends, supports Arsenal and wishes he had a girlfriend like Britney Spears.
But behind the smile is a troubled young man attempting to make up for the 10 years he lost fighting for the government.
Abdul was 15 when rebels attacked Banda Tananihum - the village where he grew up. His sister was raped and killed. The rebels wanted money and when locals couldn’t offer any, they were made to pay: they tried to chop off his uncle’s hand, but were unable to hack it off completely, leaving him screaming in pain. Abdul had to finish the job.
“I was doing it to help him. If I had not taken his hand, maybe he would have died. The hand was too heavy, all the flesh was hanging off. It was terrible, but because of love, I did it,” Abdul told me.
His father was killed during the war, too. He was getting a car for his family to try and escape when his vehicle was attacked.
Abdul felt he had no choice but to join the traditional Kamajor hunters to fight back against the rebels.
Meanwhile on the other side of the country in the diamond-rich Kono district, Ibrahim was also just a regular teenager when the war started in 1991. His family was trying to get out of the city when he became separated and was stopped at a rebel checkpoint.
Ibrahim was captured by the Revolutionary United Front and forced to join them.
“They never told me why I was arrested,” Ibrahim said. “While I was fighting with them, they never told me why we were fighting.”
Neither Abdul nor Ibrahim wanted to go to war, but for years they were made to fight each other, with atrocities committed on both sides.
Seeing them today, I cannot imagine the death and destruction these two well-mannered, easy-going men witnessed and were part of.
At the end of the war, approximately 70,000 fighters were deactivated, offered just $100 to hand over their weapons. Young angry men and women then had to make lives for themselves. Abdul and Ibrahim explained there were few jobs, while government promises of support dried up.
“It was a blessing to get bike riding jobs,” Abdul said. There are no taxis in Bo, so motorbike riders like Abdul and Ibrahim make a living charging passengers the equivalent of about 33 US cents - a decent wage in a country with very few opportunities even for the qualified.
Through the motorbike organisation, they’ve found a way to support themselves and also become friends. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore who fought whom. The general attitude is the war is over, and peace is to be enjoyed.
Despite living in an impoverished country with power cuts, poor medical care and limited infrastructure, they accept the past, have forgiven each other and have a positive outlook on life, as well as hope for the future.
They both would like wives now, and children. Abdul says he will tell his kids what he went through in the war, and he plans to send them to school and university.
Sarah Mills has been a TV, radio and online producer and reporter for more than 10 years. Before Reuters, she worked for ITN, BBC Radio Five Live and MTV. She worked with the Thomson Reuters Foundation as a freelancer last year while on a trip to Sierra Leone.